John Wilson of Tarbolton

John Wilson of Tarbolton - Composed by John C Grant ( Traditional composer from Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland.
Depiction of 'Death and Dr Hornbook' by Robert Burns

In Robert Burns’s poetic composition “Death and Doctor Hornbook,” the locale referred to as “Willie’s Mill” is none other than Tarbolton Mill, situated alongside the meandering Water of Fail. Positioned about a quarter mile from the northern terminus of Tarbolton, along the thoroughfare leading to Lochlee and Mossgiel, it stood as a prominent landmark. Within this narrative, the character of Dr. Hornbook finds his identity in Mr. John Wilson, who held the dual roles of schoolmaster and grocer in Tarbolton during that era.

During this period, there lacked a formal medical practitioner within the parish. Consequently, the mantle of providing medical counsel and dispensing remedies fell upon the shoulders of the erudite schoolmaster. Assisted by references such as “Buchan and other chaps,” encompassing works like Buchan’s Domestic Medicine and analogous sources, Mr. Wilson undertook the weighty responsibility of delivering healthcare guidance. This practice was not at all uncommon in the prevailing milieu.

However, fate took an unfortunate turn for Mr. Wilson, as his zealous enthusiasm, coupled with his eloquent discourse as an accomplished educator, came to the fore during a gathering of the Masonic fraternity. This display of ostentation managed to awaken within Robert Burns a keen perception of the potential societal hazard posed by self-proclaimed medical practitioners, commonly referred to as quacks. Such musings, ignited by this incident, stirred Burns’s poetic sensibilities, serving as the catalyst for his insightful creation on his homeward journey.

The day following its composition, the Poet recited his newly minted opus to his sibling, Gilbert, amidst the serene fields. When the time came for the initial publication of his poetic works, Burns opted to withhold this masterwork from the printer. This decision ostensibly sprang from a sense of reverence and regard for “Dr. Hornbook.” Nevertheless, this piece eventually found its way into the Edinburgh edition two years subsequent to its conception.

The aftermath of this literary depiction had a notable impact on Mr. Wilson. Confronted with an atmosphere resonating with mirthful laughter and derisive commentary, he decided to relinquish both his shop and educational responsibilities. He consequently relocated to Glasgow, where, reassuringly, he secured a dignified appointment as the session-clerk of Lochlee farm. Notably, Lochlee farm occupies a somewhat austere and visually unremarkable landscape, situated approximately three miles northeast of Tarbolton along the roadways.

John Wilson of Tarbolton - Composed by John C Grant ( Traditional composer from Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland.

A guide track for ‘John Wilson of Tarbolton’ is available below for listening: -

You can download a PDF of the sheet music here - or braille format here.

The track is additionally available within the following collections and sets: -

Associated Collections: -
6/8 Ayrshire Characters Bagpipe Jig Robert Burns The Tarbolton Collection